For all of his hapless zealotry, Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh may yet serve one useful political purpose: He may help destroy the independent counsel law that was born during Watergate 20 years ago.
Mr. Walsh hardly intends this, but his endless probe is daily making the case that the special prosecutor statute is an affront to civil liberties and the separation of powers. Though the statute expires this year, neither Congress nor President Bush seems eager to renew it now. Perhaps even the Washington political class is learning the dangers of handing unlimited time and money to a prosecutor with only a single case.
Mr. Walsh has been serving so long that he's become the first independent counsel in effect to bequeath his job to a handpicked successor. The 80-year-old admits that his deputy, 40-year-old Craig Gillen, is now `running the office.' Mr. Walsh told the Legal Times this week that, `I rarely make a suggestion.' He spends most of his time now in Oklahoma, not in Washington, and he didn't even bother to show up in court for last week's indictment of Caspar Weinberger.
`For months now,' wrote Legal Times, Mr. Gillen, `has been in charge of all facets of the independent counsel's office making key decisions on legal strategy, hiring new prosecutors, and managing the day-to-day affairs of the 43-member staff.'
This isn't how the law was supposed to work. A three-judge panel is given the job of choosing a special counsel precisely because the cases are so politically sensitive. In Iran-Contra, Mr. Walsh was the choice in large part because as a former judge at the end of his career he was unlikely to let personal ambition interfere with legal judgment.
Mr. Gillen, by contrast, is a highly ambitious career prosecutor eager to make a name for himself. He wasn't around for Mr. Walsh's early Iran-Contra prosecutions, and it's unlikely he'd want to devote two years of his life to come up empty-handed. `These are the kind of trials I like because it's like a war,' Mr. Gillen once told the Fulton County Daily Report, referring to politically charged cases.
Such ambition may help explain the remarkable tendentiousness of Mr. Gillen's indictment of Mr. Weinberger. It's clear to anyone who reads the document that his goal is less to convict Mr. Weinberger of lying than to imply conspiracy to protect Ronald Reagan.
For example, paragraph 29 of the
indictment declares that on November 23, 1986, `Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States,' met with Mr. Weinberger. Prince Bandar went on to tell Mr. Weinberger that Nancy Reagan had suggested that then Secretary of State George Shultz `had been disloyal to the president during the crisis' of Iran-Contra and `should be replaced' by Mr. Weinberger. This fascinating anecdote might be suitable for a book by Bob Woodward, but what does Nancy Reagan have to do with perjury?
Paragraph 30 recounts a November 24, 1986, meeting among senior Reagan officials, including Mr. Weinberger. Then Attorney General Ed Meese told the group that President Reagan hadn't known about a certain arms shipment to Iran. `No one contradicted Mr. Meese's incorrect statement concerning President Reagan's lack of knowledge,' declares the indictment, as if this is relevant to anything but Mr. Gillen's imagination. If Mr. Gillen thinks there was a conspiracy, why didn't he charge someone with it?
All of this has cooler heads wondering if the entire exercise has been worth it. Judge Walsh `has accomplished virtually nothing,' declared ABC's David Brinkley this past Sunday. `I have thought for some time he should pack his bags and leave town.'
Congress, too, seems to be figuring out that no one will be exempt from the new Walsh-Gillen standards for prosecutors. Malcolm Wilkey has been giving Congress a taste of what it's like with his thorough investigation of the House bank. Judge Wilkey is in fact less independent that Judge Walsh because he serves at the sufferance of the attorney general. Yet the Members have still been screaming, and Rep. Henry Gonzalez this week took the House floor to denounce Judge Wilkey. We'd have more sympathy, and the Members would have more credibility, if they'd spoken up earlier against Judge Walsh's depredations.
Mr. Wilkey's efforts have already made Congress less inclined to renew the independent counsel statute when it expires later this year. Some will try again in the next Congress, but any future president can kill the law by insisting it apply equally to both the executive and legislature. If that isn't enough, we trust Judge Walsh and his heirs will still be offering themselves as living examples of a special prosecutor run amok.